News / Africa

Contentious Issues Will Shape Kenyan Referendum

Michael Onyiego

Leading Kenyan officials have thrown their weight behind the proposed constitution on the ballot in Wednesday's national referendum, but issues of abortion, land, and Islamic courts will have the greatest impact on the country's vote.

On the eve of one of the most important votes in Kenyan history, many around the country are hopeful that Kenya can entrench its democracy and complete the process of national healing after post-election violence that rocked the country in early 2008.

Wednesday's referendum is a key part of the peace agreement struck between President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga after the disputed presidential election in December of 2007.  Allegations of fraud unleashed ethnic violence countrywide, which left more than 1,000 dead and forced 300,000 people to flee their homes.

While recent polls show more than 60 percent of the country supports the proposed constitution on the ballot, issues over land policy, abortion and Islamic courts have stirred significant controversy.

According to "No" campaign spokesman Chris Foot, ambiguities in the document could allow the government to seize private land without compensation, a right currently afforded citizens.  The proposed constitution also places limits on land ownership for non-citizens.  The new document reverts any long-lease properties to a maximum of 99 years for foreign residents.  Foot, who also is the Chairman of the Kenya Landowners Association, worries that such limits could discourage foreign investment.

In addition, Foot warned that definitions of community land in the proposed constitution could entrench Kenya's problems with tribalism.

"They have defined community land using pejorative terms such as ethnicity," said Foot.  "Bearing in mind that most of Kenya's ills come from tribalism, to actually define community land based on tribalism was a fundamental flaw.  Secondly they have said that community land is all ancestral land.  Every bit of land in Kenya at one stage was ancestral land.  We are opening a pandora's box by saying that any community can now claim its ancestral land."

But the "Yes" campaign has refuted these concerns, arguing that land issues are merely the complaints of the land-holding elite, and President Kibaki has called the proposed policy the "best land policy the country has ever had."

Land issues are particularly contentious in Kenya's Rift Valley, where large tracts of private and community land are common.  Many fear that the passage of the new constitution could renew the violence seen in 2008.

While relatively short, a single clause on abortion included in the proposed constitution has also split Kenya along religious lines.  The clause prohibits abortion in Kenya "unless, in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is a need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger."

This clause has provoked an outcry from Kenya's Christian community.  About 80 percent of Kenyans are Christian, and many believe the clause would allow abortions on-demand.  Groups such the Kenya Medical Association have accused the "No" campaign of misleading voters about the law, and refute such fears.

But Foot says the wording of the clause could be interpreted for broader access to abortion.

"Most countries in the west require you to have two medical doctors," said Foot.  "We have said a trained medical professional.  That is not defined and that could be anything from a herbalist to a nurse to a vet.  Another issue there is, initially it was just drafted so that when a mother's life was in danger.  But the Committee of Experts included an additional clause, which said the mother's health.  And if you look at the World Health Organization's definition of health, that does not just include physical health or mental health, it also includes social well-being and housing."

The inclusion of Islamic courts in Kenya's proposed constitution also has drawn criticism from the Christian community.  The draft allows traditional Muslim judges to resolve issues of marriage, divorce and inheritance if both parties are Muslim and agree to take the case to the court.  The Islamic courts, known as Khadis Courts were included in Kenya's constitution in 1963 as a concession to retain the country's predominantly Muslim coast after independence.

Most Kenyans do not object to the existence of the courts, but Christian groups argue the courts should be governed through separate legislation, and including them in the constitution unfairly discriminates against other religions.

Despite concerns over the draft, the "Yes" campaign maintains that the proposed set of laws is an improvement over Kenya's current constitution.  Prominent figures, such as Prime Minister Raila Odinga, have urged voters to pass the draft, assuring them that contentious clauses could be amended later through constitutional procedure.

While Foot agrees that the majority of the draft is good for the country, the "No" spokesman maintains that the contentious issues are too serious to be amended later.

"It is disingenuous of them to suggest we will change the flaws of it later on, because we feel it is taking the half-cooked loaf out of the oven before it is ready.  Keep the bulk of the document for sure, but that five percent, which we are not happy about, is actually a fatal and fundamentally flawed five percent."

Whatever the outcome, both sides have appealed to Kenyans for peace and national unity.  It is a pivotal moment for Kenya's democracy, and many observers believe Wednesday's vote will be very close.

You May Like

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs